Legal office limits cases

Public defender sees marked increase in felony prosecutions

Backlog likely to grow

State asked to give $1.8 million more to hire 16 attorneys

March 19, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Unable to cope with a growing caseload, the Baltimore public defender's office announced yesterday that many of its lawyers are overloaded and won't accept new cases.

The office, which represents indigent people, warns that a big backlog of cases could build up, undermining a justice system in which 85 percent of felony suspects need a public defender.

Overworked defenders are one symptom of mounting stress on the city's court system, as aggressive policing results in an increasing flow of defendants.

The number of suspects taken to the Central Booking and Intake Center has risen almost 20 percent this year over last, according to public defenders.

Public Defender Stephen E. Harris said at a news conference that he's asked the state for $1.8 million more to hire 16 attorneys, to augment the 40 who work felony cases. But with the state budget so tight, the agency's prospects appear poor.

While public defenders are constitutionally responsible for providing effective counsel for those who cannot pay for it, they can no longer do that without more funding from the state, Harris said.

"Under these circumstances, forcing attorneys to accept more cases would be unethical and unconstitutional," Harris said. "Effective immediately, no public defender carrying more than 60 active felony cases will accept new clients for representation."

More than half of the public defender's 40 felony lawyers carry a workload that exceeds 60 open cases, and half of those have more than 80 open cases at a time. One lawyer has more than 100 open cases.

Public defenders have noticed a marked increase in the past year. In January 2001, the average number of open cases per lawyer was 49. Last month, the average was 60.

All felony defenders carry caseloads of more than 200 a year, exceeding the standard of 150 a year recommended by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice, which is endorsed by the American Bar Association.

Harris has come under fire in recent months after a report issued by legislative auditors found the agency has consistently been unable to operate within the budget enacted by the General Assembly. Some critics say he leads a team of overworked and underprepared public defenders who provide ineffective representation to some poor defendants and none at all to others.

All defendants have a constitutional right to be represented by a lawyer, and if the state cannot provide one before a defendant is set to see a judge, the case will be postponed.

Because defendants have a right to a speedy trial -- in Maryland, 180 days -- judges can throw out their cases if they do not waive that right or get a trial within that time.

"The efforts of the [city], the [police] and the state's attorney's office in crime control are essential and salutary," Harris said. "However, these efforts will come to nothing if the cases cannot be resolved timely and justly."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget for fiscal year 2003 has allocated almost $60 million for the public defender's office but does not include the $1.8 million for more felony lawyers.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the budget committee, said she's not optimistic Harris will receive funds in a supplemental budget.

"It doesn't do him any good to ask for money in a supplemental budget in a year we won't have a supplemental budget," Hoffman said. "There isn't any cash."

Instead, Hoffman suggested Harris continue to do what he's done in the past -- overspend -- and hope for "deficiency appropriations."

Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Court of Appeals, said underfunding the public defender's office is "penny-wise and pound-foolish."

"The criminal justice system is just that -- a system," Bell said. "If all the parts are not working at optimum level, then the system is not going to operate effectively or efficiently."

Prosecutors and judges also have felt the impact of an influx of defendants.

The state's attorney's office, which received state funds last year to hire 14 new prosecutors and related staff to prosecute gun and homicide cases, is unsure whether it will get funding this year to keep them.

And the courts are shuffling resources and bringing back retired judges to deal with their bulging dockets.

"Our dockets are busier than they have ever been," said Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ellen M. Heller, who supports more funding for the public defender's office. "As recently as a year ago we were saying we didn't want to set more than five felony cases for trial per judge per day. Our felony case load now is between 10 and 20 per day per judge."

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who was at the news conference yesterday to support the public defender's office, said he warned the city when he took over the department two years ago that there would be more aggressive policing. "We told people what would happen, and it did happen, and I don't plan on stopping now," Norris said.

He also said he and the public defender share a goal of wanting a safer city.

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